Most people choose their words and the tone behind those words based on the environment and the situation. For example, one probably will not speak to a police officer in quite the same way that one will speak to a best friend. Similarly, one may be more apt to use slang at a party than at a business meeting. Speaking with a police officer or at a business meeting calls for one to use more formal language, while speaking to a best friend or at a party allows for one to use more informal language.
In terms of writing, tone is the author’s attitude and feelings about the audience and the subject matter. If the subject is politics, the author may choose to write using a formal tone or a sarcastic tone, depending on how the author feels about the topic and what the author is trying to convey in his or her writing. Depending on whether the author wants to sound formal or sarcastic will in turn determine the actual words used in the piece and how the author chooses to put those words together. For example, saying “The President of the United States was hanging out with friends on the White House lawn,” has a very different tone than saying, “The President of the United States was assembled with members of the Senate on the White House Lawn.” Although both sentences are similar in structure, the tone and meaning of the sentences are very different.
One way an author determines what kind of tone he or she will use is to examine who the target audience of the essay will be. Is the author writing a manual for a group of engineers? Will the piece be a political satire aimed at young professionals? Or is the essay geared towards stay-at-home moms? These are three different groups of people with different expectations about what they are reading, and the author’s tone will be – or should be – affected by the target audience. If the author is having difficulty determining the audience (for example, if the paper is required for a course that will be read by only the professor) it is a safe bet to stay in the middle. That is to say, the author’s tone in this case should be slightly informal without using slang, upbeat, fresh, and exciting without being too off-the-wall or stuffy.
One of the most obvious signs of an informal paper is the use of contractions. Simply writing out the full subject and full verb (we’re becomes we are) will formalize any paper. Many professors may require students to write using a more formal tone free from slang and contractions, however, if the purpose of the paper calls for a more informal tone, talk to the professor about the author’s intentions.
Reading selections from a variety of sources will help one understand the differences of tone along the spectrum from formal to informal. It can also help one to determine what writing style is appealing, so one can mimic that style in one’s own writing.